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Kensington Palace: Crown to Couture

By Danielle Wightman-Stone


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Fashion |In Pictures

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition

When Blake Lively arrived at the Met Gala in 2022 channelling the Statue of Liberty in her stunning custom Atelier Versace gown, curators at Historic Royal Palaces, which looks after Kensington Palace, saw how similar today’s contemporary red carpet spectacular is with the Georgian court.

‘Crown to Couture’ marks Kensington Palace’s largest exhibition to date and shows how the Royal Court in the eighteenth century was a place “to see and be seen,” with royalty, politicians and courtiers using fashion, elaborate hair and even rented jewellery to elevate their status. This level of “peacocking” draws many parallels with haute couture outfits worn by celebrities, including Lizzo, Lady Gaga and Beyonce to the Met Gala and award ceremonies.

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition

The exhibition runs from today, April 5 to October 29, and features more than 200 items, from ball gowns to court suits and handbags to jewellery, as well as make-up and shapewear, across all the state apartments in Kensington Palace. This includes a yellow mantua, thought to be the widest surviving court gown in the UK at nearly three metres, which was worn by Lady Helen Robertson of Ladykirk for her court debut around 1760, as well as Lizzo’s Thom Browne dress from the Met Gala 2022, and Moschino’s light up chandelier dress worn by Katy Perry.

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition

Polly Putnam, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said in a statement: “We’re so excited to be transforming Kensington Palace’s State Apartments for our largest ever exhibition, Crown to Couture. To see these historic spaces filled with stunning examples of both historic and contemporary dress truly brings them to life, and we can’t wait for our visitors to experience these rooms in a completely new way.

“From your choice of designer and materials to the subtle messages your dress communicates, this exhibition demonstrates the parallels between the world of the Georgian court and the modern-day red carpet as they have never been seen before.”

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition

Kensington Palace opens largest exhibition to date - Crown to Couture

The exhibition takes visitors on a journey, from the preparation and styling required to attend one of the hottest tickets in town and the “fashion rules” that must be followed, to the grand arrivals at both the court and the red carpet. While also showcasing the customs and rituals between the royal court of the 18th century and today’s red carpet by pairing modern-day pieces side-by-side with historical examples to show that getting ready for a Georgian court event isn’t that different from a red carpet appearance.

Highlights included Billy Porter’s ‘Sun God’ outfit, Kendall Jenner’s shimmering Hepburn-inspired Givenchy dress, Colman Domingo’s bright fuchsia Versace suit from the 2021 Oscars, Lady Gaga’s emerald green ensemble created by Christopher John Rogers for the 2020 MTV Awards styled with an extraordinary face mask by Lance Victor Moore.

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition

Contrasting these modern-day looks include the silver tissue dress from the 1660s for a young Lady Theophila Harris, which would have been worn at formal events and when in the company of King Charles II. The width of the court mantuas was a way of showing off how much valuable silk you owned, as well as helping you make a grand entrance. Other highlights include the Rockingham Mantua, brocaded in silver thread and silver lace trim and believed to have been worn by the wife of British Prime Minister, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, in the 1760s. The look features more than 14 metres of fabric, which would have cost over 10,000 pounds in today’s money.

The exhibit also highlights the importance of the stylist, from “the original stylist” Frances Abington, one of the most famous actresses in London in the mid-18th century, who was renowned for introducing new fashions into society, such as the famous ‘Abington cap’ and dressing important women of the day, to today’s well-known stylists from Nicola Formichetti to Jason Rembert and Elizabeth Saltzman. It was great to see that each look on display highlighted not just who designed the outfit but also who dressed the celebrity who wore it.

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition

The show also looks at how clothing can be used to make a political statement, with dresses on display, including a dress designed by Christian Siriano emblazoned with the word ‘Vote’ worn by Lizzo during the US presidential election in 2020 and a gown from Vivienne Westwood’s 2008 spring/summer show with environmental slogans on. Other highlights in this section include Lena Waithe’s Carolina Herrera-designed rainbow cape inspired by the LGBTQ+ flag and worn to the 2018 Met Gala, as well as two eighteenth-century political opponents, displayed side by side.

There are many highlights of this exhibition, including The King’s Gallery display, which has some of the most glamourous looks to view, from Billie Eilish’s billowing pink Oscar de la Renta gown from the 2021 Met Gala to Blake Lively’s Versace ensemble that unravelled to create two stunning looks, going from copper to green. You can also view Jessie Buckley’s Schiaparelli suit, Iris Law’s Moschino cut-out gown, and Timothée Chalamet’s Tom Ford suit from Cannes 2021.

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition

In the King’s Presence Chamber, where monarchs would once have received courtiers, ministers and foreign ambassadors, visitors will get an audience with music royalty, Beyonce wearing the golden dress designed by Peter Dundas to the 2017 Grammy Awards. While the Queen’s Gallery, an area devoted to the Queen’s entertaining, is lined with contemporary looks inspired by eighteenth-century fashions from the UK and France, with pieces from Jean Paul Gaultier, Edward Crutchley, Simone Rocha, Erdem and Moschino.

Claudia Acott Williams, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, added: “The customs of the Georgian court might seem distant and anachronistic, but we hope that Crown to Couture will provide a new and familiar lens through which to understand the palace’s spaces and the court’s traditions.

“By placing historic court dress in conversation with contemporary red carpet fashion and modern celebrity we begin to see that they are perhaps not so alien after all.” ‘Crown to Couture’ runs until October 29 at Kensington Palace.

Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition
Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition
Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition
Image: Historic Royal Palaces; Crown to Couture exhibition
Kensington Palace